With researchers warning that power demand from data centres is unsustainable in a climate-destabilizing world, and centre clients like Amazon and Facebook signal a strong desire for action, tech companies are working to reduce the already gigantic footprint of the world’s ballooning demand for data streaming, sharing, and storing.
“It’s not the gadgets themselves that are drawing so much power, it’s the far-flung servers that act as their electronic brains,” reports CBC. “Often bigger than a football field,” and composed of “endless stacks of servers handling many terabytes (thousands of gigabytes) of digital traffic,” servers must be kept cool, an imperative which requires huge amounts of electricity.
“As more smart devices rely on data to operate (think Internet-connected refrigerators or self-driving cars),” CBC adds, the amount of energy gobbled up by these servers is “set to skyrocket.”
MaRS Discovery District environment and technology specialist Jane Kearns said that trajectory “has real implications for our climate.” Anders Andrae, a researcher at Huawei Technologies Sweden, told CBC the annual demand from the world’s data centres could reach 651 terawatt-hours in the next year. CBC says that’s “nearly as much electricity as Canada’s entire energy sector produces.”
In the next decade, Andrae estimated last October in the International Journal of Green Technology, the demand could more than double, with computing accounting for 11% of global energy by 2030 and cloud-based services representing a “sizeable proportion” of the total.
The demand, Andrae warned, “will become completely unsustainable by 2040.”
CBC identifies streaming video as “the biggest culprit, with platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video eating up 60.6% of all Internet traffic.” But “higher-speed 5G cellular networks, more widespread artificial intelligence, and the nascent Internet of Things, such as smart home devices, are guaranteed to send data demands through the roof.”
Already responsible for between 2.0 and 3.0% of global emissions—“roughly on par with the often-criticized airline sector,” writes the CBC—the IT and communications industries are waking up to the problem, with market juggernauts like Amazon Web Services declaring that it “exceeded 50% renewable energy usage in 2018,” while committing to 100% renewables by 2030.
The trend toward less carbon-intensive cooling is also producing some unforeseen benefits for Canada, with data centre operators like California-based Digital Realty relocating to Ontario’s cooler climate. Where the Toronto Star’s printing press once operated, there is now a massive data centre which is cooled “for much of the year” through a fresh air-based heat exchange system, CBC writes.
As well, Kearns said some Canadian tech firms are “absolutely on the cutting edge” in the effort to boost data efficiency. Ottawa telecom equipment provider Ranovus, for example, is relying on “microscopic technology” to “multiply the speed and capacity of data transfers,” hoping to “reduce the amount of energy required for mass data transfers by 80%” and cut costs along the way.